Monday, June 1, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About “Kit”

NOTE:  This post is rated R for mild strong language.


You might not actually care if cyclists use the word “kit” to mean “those silly Lycra clothes we bikers wear.”  Frankly, I don’t much care myself.  But I do care how we approach language in general; how we choose the words we use; and what impact we can have on how the vernacular evolves.  If you love language—and don’t like it eroded by indiscriminate usage—then you should read this post.  It’s the third installment in a series about “kit,” and you can read the first installment here and the second here.

In this essay I rebut an argument from my friend W—, which you haven’t read.  Yeah, I know that’s awkward, but I don’t wish to quote W—’s entire e-mail.  So I’ll quote his most salient points, college-paper style.  If nothing else you’ll get a nice crash course here in identifying logical fallacies.

Straw man

W— begins his argument by stating, “Your whole argument boils down to this: ‘I don’t like Cool Hunting and the things they promote on their website; therefore, use of the word “kit” to mean cycling clothing is invalid.’”

This is a blatant example of what is called the “straw man” fallacy.  This argumentative technique involves erecting an inferior version of your opponent’s argument that can be easily knocked down.  Straw man fallacies can be effective, particularly when the audience doesn’t have the original argument at hand.  I’ll save you the trouble of looking at my earlier posts:  here is a distillation of what I wrote.
  • When we use a word, we participate in all its connotations whether we like it or not.
  • Using a word can subtly pressure others to adopt it; one teammate admitted, “‘Kit’ still sounds dumb to me, but I use the word because I think I am supposed to.”
  • Perhaps “kit” is useful, but we can avoid sounding like wannabe Euro types by using a different term.
  • “Costume” is a better word for bike clothing, because so many of us cyclists are poseurs. By using a term that mocks our own pretentiousness, we beat others to the punch.
The above points are from my first post.  That is, I made them before W— even pointed out to me that the website Cool Hunting uses the term “kit.”  How could my whole argument boil down to my reaction to a website I hadn’t yet seen when I made it?

In my second post, I made these points: 
  • Cool Hunting’s use of the term “kit” does not, in my opinion, validate the word whatsoever. 
  • Word choice is a matter not just of utility but of taste. The members of my bike club avoid “bidon,” despite knowing what it means, because we don’t like it. That “bidon” has a following doesn’t sway us.
  • The elasticity of language and the basic ability of a word to convey meaning should not be trotted out as blanket justifications for adopting new usage.
  • There is ample precedent for refusing to adopt popular expressions (e.g., “at the end of the day,” “step up our game,” “swing for the fences,” “incent”).
W—’s argument is a straw man fallacy because he has falsely claimed that one of my points is representative of all the others.  It simply isn’t. 

Meanwhile, W— hasn’t even represented my argument correctly as regards Cool Hunting.  I didn’t say Cool Hunting’s use of “kit” is invalid; I simply said that Cool Hunting’s use of “kit” doesn’t, by itself, validate widespread adoption of the word.  That is, I’m not going to start using “kit” just because some website does, especially when it’s a dorky website selling needless, overpriced, twee crap to hipsters.  W— either misunderstood what I meant by “validate,” or he’s quibbling.

Allow me to further clarify my position on “valid” vs. “validate.”  Here’s an analogy.  In the South, people often say “y’all.”  I find this a highly useful (i.e., valid) term, because it’s the only plural sense of “you” that exists in English.  However, the meaning it conveys is perhaps insufficient to validate my own use of the term, because “y’all” is not typical Californian vernacular and my use of it can be puzzling to people.  (I sometimes can’t resist its utility; this has caused others to think I was from the South or was pretending to be.)

By the way, there’s something you should know about Cool Hunting (this isn’t part of my argument, but is just a warning):

The red herring fallacy

Three paragraphs of W—’s e-mail pertain to arguments against “kit” advanced by our teammate Trevor, who started this ball rolling by questioning my use of “kit.”  Trevor attacks the notion that this term is specific and clear enough to be valid.  This is an entirely separate argument from mine, and for W— to respond to Trevor’s argument (in an e-mail addressed to me) is to commit a “red herring” fallacy.  When he writes, “Remember, the argument is not about what words you like or don’t like to use, it is about the correctness of the term ‘kit’ to refer to cycling clothing,” he’s refuting the wrong argument. My argument has always been about whether or not we ought to support “kit.” I’ve gone after its connotations, not its value as a conveyer of meaning.

As you probably already know, a red herring is an argument that seems reasonable, but doesn’t actually address your opponent’s argument.  (In my household it’s known as “red lobster” because my young daughter once goofed when rattling off a list of logical fallacies.)  A red herring can be an intentional effort to distract the audience from the subject, or an unintentional loss of focus.  W—’s red herring is a slide toward straw man, as it conflates Trevor’s argument with mine. 

Here’s an analogy.  Suppose both my kids hate spinach.  Suppose Lindsay says, “Spinach is gross because it’s slimy.”  And suppose Alexa says, “I hate spinach because it tastes like shit.”  To say, “Alexa, you’re forgetting that uncooked spinach on a salad is quite crisp” is to attack the wrong argument, conveniently ignoring what Alexa actually said.  (Take note:  I find “tastes like shit” to be a powerful and valid phrase, but not one that I’d allow my kids to actually use.  Again, utility is not the only criterion by which to judge linguistic choices.)

W— invokes another red herring when he links to this article about the origin of the word “bike,” joking that there may have been “some bike club back in 1882 or so whose riders had a raging argument about how ‘impossibly stupid’ and ‘twee’-sounding it was to refer to a bicycle as a ‘bike.’”  But the article he cites doesn’t concern any objection to “bike,” certainly not on the grounds that it was affectation of any kind.  If the British had adopted “bike” many years before Americans, and those Americans who adopted it also used silly words like “bidon,” maybe W— would be getting somewhere.  But “bike,” according to the article, is an Americanism.

Argumentum ad populum

W— contends that “it is correct, normal—and in fact quite common, even among non-Kiwi, non-Brit, non-Euro English speakers—to use the term kit to refer to a cycling jersey and shorts. None of your criticism of Cool Hunting refutes that. And in fact their usage serves as proof that even a non-cycling specific website with national/international reach uses the term in the way I describe.”  W— goes on to describe a survey he did among participants in the Port of Oakland ride, asking what they call bike clothing.  The result:  “8 out of 10 serious responses were ‘kit.’  These are real, living users of the English language.”  (I wonder if it’s really fair to throw out non-serious responses; after all, isn’t the court jester typically the voice of reason in Shakespeare?  And “real, living users” somehow makes me think of the signs outside strip clubs saying, “See and talk to live nude girls!”  Is this parenthetical aside a red herring?  Absolutely.  Will the phrase “nude girls” bring traffic to my blog?  I hope so.)

An argumentum ad populum fallacy is made when the popularity of an idea is represented as evidence of the legitimacy or veracity of that idea.  Sometimes it’s tempting to assume something is right simply because so many people believe that it is.  (Here’s a doozy of an argumentum ad populum:  “Cigarettes are great!  After all, 40 million Americans can’t be wrong!”)

Whether W— commits this fallacy hinges on what he means by “correct” where word choice is concerned.  So I’ll quote him again; he reiterates that “kit” is “correct English usage, in common parlance in the USA, at least among bikies.”  So for him, “correct” means “in common use,” and I hope I don’t commit my own straw man fallacy by paraphrasing his argument thus:  “People do call it ‘kit.’  Get over it.”

So, his “everybody’s doing it” argument works okay if you construe proper usage as “talking the way everybody else talks.” If we accept “conveys meaning” as the be-all and end-all of language, then W— isn’t really committing a fallacy here.  But of course we shouldn’t accept “conveys meaning” as the true calling of language.  That’s where the next fallacy comes in.

Naturalistic fallacy and the is/ought problem

The Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, in A Treatise on Human Nature, “I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a god, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find that instead of the usual copulations of proposition, is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or ought not.”

Building on this, the British philosopher G.E. Moore introduced the term “naturalistic fallacy” and warned against drawing moral or qualitative judgments—the ought—from empirical observation—the is.  Notions like Social Darwinism, the validity of unrestrained capitalism, eugenics, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, and so forth are all committing the naturalistic fallacy.  This fallacy lurks behind many a defeatist approach, such as, “If the great grey owl can’t handle a little habitat displacement, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.  Fate favors pigeons.  Get over it.”

As language goes, the naturalistic fallacy promotes the assumption that the way words end up being used is the same thing as how words ought to be used.  So a  person may reason, “If enough people call a lectern a podium, well, I can too!  If teenagers are throwing around words like ‘twerk’ and ‘vape,’ well, maybe I should too, to show how youthful and with-it I am!  And, I can always use ‘their’ as a third-person singular possessive pronoun (e.g., ‘each person must have their own ticket’), since everybody else does it.  It has become correct, by definition!”  Okay, fine, talk like that.  But don’t assume everybody’s going to like it, or that everybody should.

What does this have to do with “kit”?  Well, W— keeps pointing out examples of how “kit” is used.  I’m trying to make the case that perhaps it ought not be used.  Not because “kit” is as foul as “YOLO” or “artisanal,” but because I think we (i.e., my bike club, and the readers of this blog) can do better.

The do-gooder problem

As for as I know, “the do-gooder problem” isn’t an established category of problem, like a logical fallacy is.  But I feel the need to address a whiff of egalitarian, all-together-now spirit in W—’s argument:  again and again, he equates “correct” with “normal” and “common.”    Thus, when a person like me seeks to fault all these good, common, honest people who are just gettin’ it said, the only way they know how ... well, this may come off as elitist.

To combat the possible PR issue here, I’d like to make a distinction between “elite” and “elitist.”  In my opinion, the desire to do something really well (i.e., better than the average person does) doesn’t make you elitist.  It may make you elite (if you’re successful), but being elite is not itself being elitist and is not a character flaw.

You know that viral YouTube video “Shit Cyclists Say”?  I won’t lie—I’ve heard a lot of those lines from my teammates and I’ve used a few myself—but our general level of discourse is much higher than this.  During bike rides, I’ve had fascinating discussions about economics, public key encryption, net neutrality, glaciers, human nature, and—yes—language.  We don’t judge—though we may debate—and we set a high standard for one another.

This high standard comes through in our members’ race reports, which are consistently funny, food-centric, and well-written.  One member even took a page from the celebrity playbook and enlisted a ghost writer to help burnish his report.  Even something as basic as the name of our training race has been subject to continual revision:  “Hammer Ride” became “Haimer Ride” (based on an e-mail typo) before being renamed “House of Pain” which (perhaps because it wasn’t original, or perhaps because it was too brash) was changed to “Domicile of Hurt” (the acronym being implicit).  This still wasn’t good enough so it was then changed to the delightfully redundant “Domicile of Yurt.”  It’s this spirit of constant innovation that makes me think we EBVCers (and you, elite reader of blogs) could be leaders in the linguistic realm instead of blithely adopting whatever trendy lingo we come across.

So, to reiterate:  “kit” is a valid term, perhaps not completely precise but nonetheless useful (unlike “irregardless” and “biweekly”).  I don’t care who uses “kit,” and I won’t call you out for using it, and I plan to use it myself from time to time as a safeguard against dogmatism (though anybody who knows me will automatically fill in the air quotes, like he or she presumably does every time I insert a pregnant pause before uttering the word “Internet”).  But, recognizing that we can choose to accept or deflect memes, I encourage you to second-guess “kit.”  Sure, it’s a word; sure, it’s valid—but is that really enough?

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